“Name What is Unnamed”: Geocinema on Diarying the War in Ukraine

Geocinema, "Making of Earths," 2021 (still). Courtesy the artist.

The Making of Earths is a solo presentation by the research-based filmmaking collective Geocinema (Asia Bazdyrieva and Solveig Suess), presented at the Dr. Éva Kahán Foundation in Vienna from May 25th to July 31st. The collective’s work focuses on the production of imperialist realities through infrastructural projects: networks of logistics, regimes of data and extraction, and how these give shape to our presents.

The Making of Earths follows their engagement with the Digital Belt and Road Initiative (DBAR), an extension of China’s Belt and Road Initiative that aims to develop an Earth-sensing system that the Chinese government would have total autonomy over. While the stated aim of DBAR is China’s data sovereignty, and the government has pegged the initiative as largely scientific, it has caused international concern following events such as the Hambantota Port incident in Sri Lanka. What could such an infrastructure engender? The collective unpacks the production of the DBAR at one of its nodal points in Thailand, and simultaneously challenges the Western narrative around it, which is equally tied to imperialism anxieties. They take as a starting point the cosmo-political problem of earth-sensing and ask what it is to make an “earth” out of the many worlds we have always inhabited. The collective’s research speaks to the epistemic violence of the project and their archival material gestures at different histories of the imagination of the earth. In concert with this, Bazdyrieva’s audio installation The Labour of Witnessing (2022), which details her experience of being in Kyiv during the brutal Russian invasion, speaks to the continued project of Russian imperialism in Ukraine and its acceleration. This work offers an insight into the artist’s attempts to imagine a new decolonial vocabulary from the so-called Post-Soviet Sphere, from the point of view of infrastructural imperialism. Through a series of conversations and correspondences, I talked with Bazdyrieva and Suess about these incredibly urgent themes in their work and their research, between June and July 2022.

Geocinema, “Making of Earths,” May 25-July 31, 2022, Kahán Art Space Vienna. Courtesy the artist.

I wanted to start with the film project and archival material, collected across your research in Thailand—where we first met—and in China. What struck me was the relationship you were drawing between cosmopolitical modernist projects in Southeast Asia—tied to the observation of the solar eclipse by Rama VI of Thailand—and ongoing projects of Earth-sensing developed under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative. I wonder if you might be able to talk about this multi-scalar approach, and the place of image-making within these?

Solveig Suess: We were led by a fascination with the human’s psychological need for certainty, where we loosely framed our research by drawing a link between the desire to see and to know, and between seeing and governing. We know from history that observing the movement of celestial objects has been crucial for humans to understand their position in the world. From determining the patterns of these movements, calendars were made, and from these calendars, new forms of governance began to arise. And to really explore the link between looking up or seeing from above—it mobilizes both one’s desires and massive infrastructures to perpetuate it. Our film Making of Earths explores the longue durée of the modern trope that the future is manageable, where we had the recurring trope of the total eclipse. The eclipse encapsulated for us this many-scales-of-desires, of looking up so to look back down to earth, while allowing us to speak about prediction and large ambitions of synchronization of data.

We have two main parallel stories; one of King Mongkut, a Thai king who in 1868 predicted a total eclipse. His prediction had been more accurate compared to the calculations made by French and British imperial powers, where this competition was often seen to be “an event symbolic of epistemological struggle.” We have his story sit next to our filmed scenes of the Digital Belt and Road (DBAR), a project that came out of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, now composed of the United Nations and with nation-states, scientific bodies, and corporations across four continents—the first being Thailand representing the Southeast Asian region. Under the ambition of managing increasing uncertainty brought forth by climate change, it proposes to use Earth’s observational data to manage climate risks during a moment of major geopolitical shifts and ever-expanding control on land. For us, the story of the eclipse placed a lens on our contemporary moment, pulling out this feverish drive over assembling data under the purpose of forecasting, positioning forecasting as an important practice within transitioning cosmopolitical powers.

We began the process of our film feeling daunted by the scales that a project like DBAR suggested, with the involved projects being so vastly distributed—having twenty-seven satellite missions, four satellite ground stations within China’s borders, the initiative had already launched eight representative centers outside and across four continents before the end of 2018. As we began modestly recording our encounters and conversations, we chose to become two bodies led by uncertainty and research through moving images. When discussing our thread of research, media theorist Jussi Parikka wrote that imaging and sensor-based techniques that have proliferated over the past few decades are “emblematic of alternative sense of visuality but also of the political formulation of issues of territory and futurity.” This visuality is less about the images as such, but about the architectures, labor, and infrastructures through which the operations unfold. It felt important for us not to try to represent the visuality of Earth sensing and imaging itself, but to move through the spaces whose locations compose and mobilize this ‘sense of visuality’ under the DBAR. Whether a cinema globe situated at the center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Miyun and Sri Racha satellite ground station, the climate research center of Bangkok, conference halls in Tengchong volcanic district, each location played a key role in Big Earth Data in how it was being gathered, visualized, interpreted, or circuited within the surrounding political economy. For us, the work tries to highlight the various mechanisms through which seemingly neutral scientific methods of observation and knowledge-making are strangely embodied. The instruments used to be able to see them as data or produce images in the first place, such as the techniques used for Earth Observation today, would also depend on a whole set of infrastructures supported by particular geometries of power with regimes of data that are very territorial despite being invisible.

The archival desk which sat next to the projected film footnotes our research for the film. We included images from the geographies which make up DBAR, to a longer lineage of photography and image cultures, drawing oblique connections between past Jesuit contributions to Earth-sensing techniques, the militarization of the scientific gaze, vast resource extraction, and current demands to battle the future of climate change. We often refer to a feminist politics of reworking signal and codes through audio-visual material, which often can emerge through stitching and unstitching across different temporalities and spatial distances. Throughout, we consistently return to the eclipse through which the Earth is known. And as a reminder that even if one would be able to see the eclipse for something like a proof of certainty, they would need to be standing in its darkest shadows at the same time. With this film and its hypnotizing score created by Jessika Khazrik, we wanted to stay with this tension, and open up more spaces of disorientation and uncertainty within these otherwise totalizing projects.

Geocinema, “Making of Earths,” 2021 (still). Courtesy the artist.

What emerges is an embodied and multi-perspectival understanding of “infrastructural imperialism”—though do correct me if I’m wrong. But I’d be very curious to hear more of your perspective on the relationships between geopolitical forces and power, and realignments of infrastructures as you see them unfolding.

SS: The five-continental, mega-infrastructure project collectively known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is being planned in some of the most ecologically fragile places on earth; this coincides with the Chinese state’s ambition to have a larger presence in international climate politics, taking central geopolitical roles in issues of air and water pollution, soil contamination and erosion, habitat and wildlife loss. What has been developed by the Chinese state beyond the confines of its borders is a practice of infrastructural diplomacy both as forms of statecraft and as expanding spheres of influence. It was against this background that the Chinese Academy of Science launched the BRI’s digital counterpart, DBAR, in 2018. Envisioned as the “digital nervous system of the globe,” the international platform aims to aggregate and redistribute Earth Observation data on a planetary scale. With the mandate to study past climates towards future protection, its networks form an umbrella to support the ever-more fluid international exchange of data and information. Strategic partnerships are being built to span across regions of Eurasia, Africa, and the Arctic, under the promise of being able to manage largescale disasters which include markets, populations, and climates risks to come. What is simultaneously ushered in are freshly-laid fiber optic cables, implementation of environmental sensing, new data centers, synchronization of softwares which contribute to the development of comprehensive, coordinated observation systems. Systems which configure and evolve with the Earth itself.

Map of the Belt and Road Initiative. Source: https://www.silkroadbriefing.com/the-belt-and-road-initiative.html

Going back to your question on infrastructural imperialism—what’s so particular about China’s globalizing physical and virtual operations is that they form only part of the larger socio-technical assemblage that is deeply intertwined with international financial instruments, investment schemes, corporate infrastructures, production chains, and the construction of future cities. It is through the “deterritorialized flows” of global markets, further obscured by the seemingly invisible and not-necessarily territorial regimes of data, that power is able to take force. Enacted on various temporal and spatial scales, opaque transactions which occur between DBAR and “data-poor” countries, nation-states, and private actors, loans and investments schemes, prioritize China’s position in the global economy.

In spite of the rhetoric of sustainability that DBAR frames itself, when asking the question of how futures are being programmed in the present, what needs to be held in account are the power geometries being created. For example, proposed international collaboration involves state and private entities across Norway, Finland, and Russia in the polar region. And it includes the prospective opening of underwater resources and development of new shipping routes in the Arctic as part of the Belt and Road initiative, while setting the grounds for scientific research projects which seek partnership under DBAR. Science occupies a rather marginal position, rather these integration of big data enables certain types of infrastructures to be realized. These certain kinds tend to prioritize fibre optics and telecom networks, smart cities development, e-commerce, and more ‘green’ extractive activities. Large international companies, such as KPMG, partner with DBAR and provide their expertise in harnessing data and analyzing it while recognizing business opportunities for their clients and making them operable under the BRI.

Entering into the many layers of the Digital Belt and Road, there is already an understanding for the prioritized efforts being made in centralizing databases and standardizing protocols for staff and machines. There is a scene with Dr. Monthip Sriratana, director of DBAR in Bangkok, in our film, where she points out the many techniques and processes that different countries and organizations use to collect meteorological and environmental data. Her interview is cut with shots of her collection room scattered with a dozen different servers for various different types of satellites and their corresponding systems needed to download and decode the data. Scenes like this remind us that dealing with massive amounts of Earth observation data requires constant maintenance of transferring, storing, processing, and sharing geospatial data, as well as activities such as developing theory and methods for interpreting Big Earth Data. It is here where value and power over knowledge collude on unprecedented scales. We are contributing a chapter in Cyberwar Topologies: In Struggle for a Post-American Internet, a collection edited by Svitlana Matviyenko, Dalton Kamish, Zaina Khan, and Kayla Hilstob, which further unpacks how power is being mobilized through these new and shifting alignments.

Asia, you presented for the first time your incredibly powerful and incisive war diaries, the labor of witnessing, that began as a series of diaristic daily entries on Instagram that you began in Kyiv at the escalation of Russia’s imperialist war on Ukraine. Here, we were invited to sit in a small soft room, and listen to you read this diary out—and you said you recorded it while you were still in Kyiv. It emerges as an incisive critique of Putin and Russia’s imperial and colonial ideologies as they are being experienced, but also as part of a continued ideological campaign that has existed for generations. How would you reflect on these in the present moment?

Asia Bazdyrieva: I made my diary public on February 24th, 2022 at 5 a.m. when I woke up to the sound of explosions and was getting ready to run across the city to find my sister and to relocate to the bomb shelter. Initially, the urgency of making it public was to signal to the ‘outside world’ that I was alive and to communicate what was going on with and around me. You see, when I was receiving messages like “how are you” or “are you safe,” I stumbled, I realized that the ‘normal’ language has cracked. What does ‘safe’ mean if I am alive, but the reality collapses down with the sound of sirens and aviation, and when, while sitting in the basement, I try to reduce the reverberation of these sounds by putting pieces of cotton into my ears. This rift in reality was so intense and overwhelmingly raw. I accepted the realization that it is my job in this war to name what is unnamed. This is why the diary is called The Labour of Witnessing. This labor, eventually, gave me purpose and saved me from darkness, from the paralyzing fear and despair that would come as tidal waves every so often.

Rather than the critique of Putin, this diary provides an entry point into the current war and longer imperial legacies as a complex of processes, a product of hybrid Russo-Soviet-European colonialism that enables regimes of power that prevail through a constant reinvention and eliminates life and non-life. I write about largely ignored Russian fascism; about cyberwar and epistemological polarization as the result of continuous attacks on the very possibility of making sense of reality; I write about imperial logic that is ingrained so deeply on all levels of Russian daily life and cultural production; about the agency of people in Russia whose chose to support all the above despite having enough access to information to form their opinions otherwise, who choose delusional national pride over values. And I also address intelligentsia of the Global North, the one that is not capable of recognizing other forms of imperialism, apart from the Western one.

Geocinema, “Making of Earths,” 2021 (still). Courtesy the artist.

Finally, you mentioned that the next trajectory of the research would directly address Russian infrastructural imperialism via petro-capitalism. The histories of Russian and Soviet colonization of Eastern Europe have largely been left out of theorizations of colonial history—and you’ve mentioned elsewhere the urgency of developing new vocabularies that might be used to understand both the history and the contemporary moment more precisely. Could you tell us about how these are emerging within your current research?

AB: Correct. Eastern Europe does find itself in the epistemological gap. You see, Western critique of colonialism is based on the critique of European modernity and the political-economic reality that shaped it. It often refers to the Soviet political-economic model as an alternative, yet it overlooks the fact of the Soviet modernity which operated through similar categories of time and progress, but with different registers of speed, different infrastructures for exclusion and depletion. In my recent work I argued that Ukraine has been subjected to the dual colonial gaze that envisions Ukraine-as-territory—a site for material transactions between colonial powers. These dual colonialisms have emerged through the long history of European expansionism that through cartographic processes has been outlining peripheries, and though the byproducts of such processes, such as the Russian Empire, which soaked up Western ideas, some of the most radical of which were taken to the extreme in the Soviet era (which, despite its advanced and theoretically-transgressive political slogans, proved to be environmentally catastrophic). It is precisely this combination of colonialisms that led to a hybrid European–post-Soviet capitalism that allows ecologically concerned “developed” countries to continue extractivist processes “elsewhere.” What is happening in Ukraine now is not a local problem—it is a larger actualization of imperialism in recent history. And it is a belated request to question current epistemological frameworks. It is time to understand that there was a huge gap in knowledge that was for a long time way too convenient for many, and it led to the hydrocarbon war, and the reinvention of fascism which is unfolding catastrophically—for humans, non-humans, living and nonliving matter.

 

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